Floating whales, apple picking, and kitten rescue: how this VR therapist helps people conquer fear of heights

Nic in Oxford VR

Oxford VR, a spin-out company of Oxford University, has developed an automated virtual reality programme which can help people conquer their fear of heights.
The programme features a virtual therapist called Nic, who coaches people through various challenges like picking apples or rescuing a cat from a tree.
The results of the first trial, published on Thursday, are extremely positive.
Dr Daniel Freeman hopes that using virtual reality will improve accessibility for people seeking treatment.

A fear of heights is one the most common phobias. One in five people experience a fear of heights at some point in their lives, and for one in 20 it’s a clinical phobia.

Dr Daniel Freeman is a professor of clinical psychology and has been working on the integration of VR for therapeutic purposes since 2001, when he began researching whether VR could be useful in treating paranoia.

Now he has developed a programme of VR exposure therapy with Oxford VR, a spin-out company from Oxford University. It’s principally funded by OSI, which specialises scaling ideas from the university. Significantly, the programme uses a fully automated virtual therapist, named Nic (which stands for “Now I Can”) who can walk people through the programme and tailor the user’s experience accordingly.

The programme takes place in a large atrium that resembles a shopping centre. Users are asked to perform a series of ever more challenging tasks to help them confront their fear, gradually ascending the building’s ten floors. Nic is equipped with voice recognition so that she can ask users if they feel comfortable going up a floor, or if they’d like to repeat a task. She can also gauge people’s level of fear as they go along, by asking on a scale of nought to ten how afraid they feel.

The virtual atrium is a distinctly surreal environment; colourful balls float towards the ceiling, and a huge airborne whale glides through the air. According to Dr Freeman, these fantastical elements act as “height reminders,” making sure to bring on the symptoms normally experienced by people with vertigo when they’re in a high place. Plus at the end of the treatment, if they wish, users get to ride the whale.

The tasks themselves are also designed to be weird and fun. Users are be asked to rescue a cat from a tree, or play the xylophone by the edge of a walkway, or pick virtual apples from a tree.

According to Dr Freeman, the playfulness of the VR world actually helps make it effective. “You do things that you wouldn’t do in real life,” he told Business Insider. “Then when you go to a much more normal experience in real life, you feel better around it.”

VR teaches the conscious and unconscious brain

The virtual reality environment both gives people reassurance they’re not in any real danger, but it’s enough to trigger the symptoms of their phobia.

“One of the beauties of [VR] is this disconnect between your head saying ‘It’s fine, there isn’t a height here’ and your body telling you there is. And that disconnect allows …read more

Source:: Business Insider


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